Advocates and supervisors get testy over Fresno County general plan

Speakers line up to address Fresno County supervisors about the county’s general plan update.
Speakers line up to address Fresno County supervisors about the county’s general plan update. The Fresno Bee

Advocates for disadvantaged communities lined up to address Fresno County supervisors Tuesday to complain that the county’s process for updating its long-term growth plan favors developers but excludes the poorest of those most affected by the plan.

Some supervisors disputed accusations by advocates that anyone is being ignored and accused them of ignoring the fact that more public comment and participation is being scheduled.

Senior planner Mohammad Khorsand said the county has received 18 letters from public agencies, interested organizations and individuals about updating the general plan to guide growth until 2040.

There’s been a lot of public outreach, he said.

Documents about the general plan were posted on the county website and a news release went out, he said. Also, two meetings were held in Riverdale and Fresno to receive public comments on the scope of the upcoming environmental impact report that accompanies a general plan.

A public “notice of preparation” was released in March, he said, and there was a 45-day public comment period. The notice was published in Fresno, Sanger and Kerman newspapers, and was posted in libraries and online, he said. Interested members of the public and organizations also got the notice.

Additionally, two public meetings will be held in the summer of 2019, a planing commission workshop will be held, and the final environmental impact report, general plan and zoning ordinance documents will be prepared, and a public hearing will take place.

Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said it is clear to anyone who listened to the staff presentation that there’s has been community outreach already and more to come.

But, he said, an op-ed in The Fresno Bee blasting the county states “Fresno County has conducted no public outreach in the development of their new general plan.”

That ignores the reality that there will be public meetings next year, he said. “We’re not deciding on this document in its totality … today,” Borgeas said.

Bernard Jimenez, assistant director of public works and planning, said general plan documents were made public well before it was required so the public could see them. Additionally, the county has gotten more than 100 pages of comments from the public related to the general plan update, he said.

But lawyer Kena Cador of the ACLU Foundation of Northern California said disadvantaged communities often suffer from environmental hazards and get ignored by planners.

“The county should engage disadvantaged communities directly to ensure that unique concerns are considered,” she said.

The county must identify all disadvantaged communities, have policies for safe and sanitary neighborhoods and have a transparent process for identifying the disadvantaged communities, she said.

Mariah Thompson, an attorney and co-chair of the environmental justice subcommittee of the National Lawyers Guild-Central Valley Chapter, who co-authored the op-ed in The Bee that raised Borgeas’ ire, said the general plan update documents “contain substantial legal deficiencies” that make them vulnerable to a lawsuit.

There are problems involving housing and climate adaptation planning, and the data is so out of date the documents don’t comply with state environmental quality laws, she said.

Additionally, “robust public participation is extremely important,” but that’s not really happening in Fresno County, she said.

Scoping sessions make for nice bullet points but the sessions are “not an opportunity for the public to give input on their goals, their priorities and the way they want future development in their county to move forward,” she said.

What works is “robust outreach in the community” in the evenings and weekends, and for the county to seek out comment from the communities.

“That … did not take place in this process,” Thompson said.

Supervisor Brian Pacheco confronted Thompson.

“You’re the author of this nice letter to the editor. … How can you sit up there and make statements like that when our staff told you, in advance, that we opened it up before we even needed to, and then you make a statement like you do. … How can you in good conscience sit there and tell us that?”

Thompson responded that “a single page NOP (notice of preparation) that is published on a bulletin board in a library is not enough to get an ordinary resident and citizen of Fresno County to come and really read a 1,500-page series of documents, know how to respond to them and … ”

Before she could finish, Pacheco interjected, “We haven’t even started that portion of it yet. So the public portion is coming in the future, and yet we are going above and beyond to notify the public this is coming … and then you sit here and criticize what staff has done and we’re not even at that portion yet.”

Thompson responded that while the county will hold a public hearing on the draft EIR, the problem is “once the EIR is prepared, it’s really hard to go back and make substantial changes to the base document that the EIR was based on,” she said.

Pacheco said he strongly disagreed: “Changes can be made all along the process,” he said.

The op-ed in The Bee seemed to him like it was written from a template because it incorrectly referred to Fresno County as “city” instead of “county.”

Thompson said, “that was a typo and I do apologize.”

“Oh really,” Pacheco said. “Amazing.”

Thompson said the county should look to the Fresno Council of Governments for a good example of “robust public participation.” They went through a similar public process and received a whopping 1,300 project ideas from the community, she said.

The 18 letters that the county got were from agencies and organizations, “not individual residents talking about what their values are,” she said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold